Fact vs. Opinion: How to Define Reality in the Era of Fake News

Elizabeth BurnamFollow

Aug 2 · 9 min read

Photo by Andrew Vickers.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” — Max DePree

A 2018 study finally confirmed it: Your brain does not distinguish between facts and opinions it already agrees with.

This phenomenon is called “involuntary opinion confirmation,” and it explains why it’s so hard to change some folks’ minds — even when presented with concrete scientific evidence that rebukes their opinions.

It explains why you cannot mention climate change without your one weird uncle ruining Christmas dinner, and why even some of the most politically-informed among us continue to like, share, and comment on “fake news” articles touting what could only be objectively described as nonsense.

However, the more I find myself trying to convince seemingly inconvincible people of objective, rational, scientifically-supported facts, the more I begin to wonder: What is fact? What is proof of a fact? What is reality?

If a flat-earther’s definition of proof consists of that which they can personally see and feel and my definition consists of some thousands of years of scientific evidence — while others’ definition of proof consists of, perhaps, a science-fiction novel — then how are the lot of us ever supposed to come to terms on what is and isn’t real?

If we are arguing the same subject using different criteria for what defines reality, then what is reality? And if we can’t agree on a universal definition of reality, then how can we ever begin to collaborate to solve our shared challenges as human beings?

I don’t know. I don’t expect any of us to ever know for sure — but here’s my opinion.

How to Define Reality in the Era of Fake News

The question of reality is really a question of perception — more specifically, the question of the relative value and truthfulness of different perspectives.

In the scientific, spiritual, and philosophical realms, there seem to be three prevailing perspectives on reality:

Subjective reality

This is the reality that exists inside your head. It’s the one you can see, touch, taste, hear, and feel — the one that climate change-deniers are using when they say, “where’s global warming now?” during the first snowfall of the season. As a writer, I like to call this perspective the first-person narrative.

Social reality

Social or consensus reality is shared between you and I and the rest of the world. It is the reality that we collectively experience. If you and I both agree that the sky is blue, then the blueness of the sky is a part of our social reality — and if we also agree that the sky is blue because a deity made it so, then we’ve developed a faith based in our shared social reality.

However, what if our subjective perceptions of blueness differ in everything but the name? What if blue to me looks red to you? And how many people need to share one perception of reality for it to be considered a social reality? Is Christianity, with more than two billion adherents, more sociallyreal than a cult of 13 people?

Objective reality

This is the reality that exists outside of our perception of it. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, this is the reality in which that tree makes a sound. Objective reality is omniscient and (currently) impossible to prove, because human beings don’t have any reliable way of taking this point of view. We can only dance around it with our subjective eyes and ears and hands and noses.

Objective reality is what I’m talking about when I refer to a “universal” definition of reality. It’s what the scientific community chases by repeating the same experiment over and over again, poking and prodding at reality from as many different angles as possible.

The question, then, is how do we suspend our subjective and socially-influenced perception long enough to catch a glimpse of objective reality? And if we were able to do so, does the absence of subjective opinion and social construction constitute fact?

Of course, all of this is founded on the idea that our objective reality (fact) is warped by our subjective reality (opinion), but what if the opposite is true? What if one shared opinion can influence human behavior in such a way that it forces change on our objective reality?

What if, for example, one toxic opinion — “when you’re a star, they let you do it” — is voiced loudly and frequently enough that an overwhelming majority of people accept it as a part of their shared reality? What impact does that majority’s subsequent behavior have on objective reality?

I don’t have the answer to any of these questions — but here is my opinion.

Facing the Facts: “Fake News” is Political Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser manipulates their victim into questioning their own definition of reality. Gaslighters sneakily and subtly erode their victims’ self-confidence by denying the truth, refusing to take responsibility for their actions, placing themselves on a pedestal, and confusing the victim to the point of questioning their own sanity.

In other words, gaslighting sounds like:

  • “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”

  • “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write, as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

  • “No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days.”

  • “I don’t know Putin.”

Photo by Oakie.

Here’s what I’m trying to get at: The era of “fake news” is an era of psychological warfare by and between our political leaders. It is an effort to disrupt our confidence and distort our perception of reality and, as a result, undermine our democratic power.

When you find yourself — as I have — questioning the nature of reality, you’ve gone too deep. You’ve fallen victim to the narcissistic, power-hungry forces behind the “fake news” articles and accusations peppering our social feeds.

So how do you combat these manipulation tactics and regain your grip on reality?

I don’t know for sure — but here is my opinion.

How to Reclaim Your Reality and Reinvigorate the Collective Power of Democracy

If you’re reading this and you feel like you’re in the matrix, you’re not alone.

A gaslighter’s rise to power is, for lack of a better metaphor, like boiling a frog: It is a prolonged pattern of behavior that escalates so slowly as to be imperceptible to the victim.

And the first step to hopping out of the pot and stopping yourself from boiling is to become conscious of the heat.

In other words, you need a change in perception.

STEP 1: Disconnect.

“Fake news” is a distraction.

It’s what pushed you into the pot in the first place.

But distraction, as Curt Steinhorst defines it in his Forbes article, is confusion about what really matters.

In that case, defining reality in the era of fake news is a matter of rising above these distractions and, instead, allowing your moral and emotional compass to be your guide. It’s a matter of revisiting your core values and using those values to help inform your subjective definition of reality.

When you understand what’s truly important to you, you can use that understanding as the lens through which you view the world — and, in turn, you begin to develop trust in your own perception of reality.

By disconnecting from the constant stream of lies and misinformation coming from your televisions, computers, and iPhone screens, you can begin to take an accurate, unbiased pulse on the state of the world around you.

In the era of fake news, tuning out is an act of self-care.

Of course, I don’t mean that you should tune out forever — just long enough to ground yourself and reconnect with your subjective reality.

STEP 2: Communicate.

The only way to rebuild trust in yourself and others is through open, honest, and civilized conversation.

Once you’ve reacquainted yourself with your subjective reality, you can branch out and start to develop a better sense of your social reality.

Encourage open communication and mutual respect between your friends, family, and coworkers. Ask for the opinions of those who disagree with you and listen attentively to their answers. Gently alert them when they’ve done or said something that hurt you, and let them know that you support them as human beings, whether or not you can come to a mutual agreement.

The more honesty, authenticity, and compassion you put out into the world, the safer everyone will feel to express themselves in constructive ways. With a conscious effort to practice empathy and active listening, you gain the additional perspective you need to define your current social reality — and, as a result, get a little bit closer to understanding your objective reality.

Mind you, defining reality is not the same as creating reality. Before you spend time trying to tell others what our shared reality should look like, work with them to understand what it is now.

As Katie Hoffman says, “Dismissing someone else’s opinion doesn’t make your own opinion any more valid — instead, it dismisses your value as a discourse participant.”

STEP 3: Act.

Most psychology and relationship experts agree that the best way to prevent further gaslighting is to cut off the gaslighter entirely.

Of course, that’s a little bit difficult when the person(s) gaslighting you are the leader(s) of your country — but I am nothing if not optimistic.

The beauty of democracy is that once we’ve reached a consensus on what our collective reality is, we can work together to transform it into what it ought to be.

Democracy was built for this.

But it only works if we take action.

And although action can take on many forms, it does not take the form of liking, sharing, and retweeting false and inflammatory information that perpetuates the narcissistic abuse we’ve been subjected to as a society.

Instead, we need to take conscious steps to refine our perspectives, identify and callout disinformation when it’s propagated by others, and resist the urge to partake in belligerent and nonsensical debate when goaded.

“Everyone has a responsibility to combat the scourge of fake news,” explains Darrell M. West in his Brookings article. “This ranges from supporting investigative journalism, reducing financial incentives for fake news, and improving digital literacy among the general public.”

Photo by Jose Moreno

Time for a Reality Check?

Everyone has an opinion, but not every opinion is based on fact — and in the era of fake news, some people are still struggling to understand the difference between fact-based opinions and opinions seemingly pulled from a hat.

If it’s important for you to:

  • Know what is and isn’t subjectively real (i.e. what you personally value and believe)

  • Know what is and isn’t socially real (i.e. what’s important to your society)

  • Know what is and isn’t objectively real (i.e. where society currently stands, regardless of your or others’ opinion of it)

… then you need to take steps to ensure that you can access valid information, consider that information from multiple perspectives, and understand the impact that information has or can have on the world around you.

Yes, you may be entitled to your opinion.

But in the era of fake news, it is civically irresponsible to hold anything less than a well-researched, well-informed, openly-debated-and-humbly-refined opinion.

In other words, before you go around shoving your opinions down other peoples’ throats, first make sure that your opinion is based in objective reality.

And if you decide that, yes, this opinion is truly based in concrete, corroborated facts from reliable resources, then do more than just share it with your network. Act.

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